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A Visit to Briarwood

I was delighted that the mountain laurel was in bloom at Briarwood.

I chanced upon Caroline Dormon’s writings  back in the 80’s – probably as a result of reading Elizabeth Lawrence’s gardening books.

Lawrence and Dormon were friends.  They corresponded frequently and worked together on a couple of books.

Their most notable collaboration was probably Gardens in Winter which was written by Lawrence and beautifully illustrated by Dormon.

From all accounts, Miss Caroline was a ball of fire.  She had definite opinions and she spoke her mind.   She was a Naturalist, the first female Forester in Louisiana, a Teacher, an Artist and a Writer.  She called her North Louisiana home Briarwood.

The Bay Garden's Louisiana iris were in bloom.

Miss Caroline passed in the early 1970’s and her friends took steps to insure that Briarwood was preserved.

Richard and Jessie Johnson were chosen as curators.  As a child, Richard was Miss Carrie’s neighbor.  He worked in her garden and became her friend.

Richard and Jessie live at Briarwood.

They spend their days maintaining the nature preserve and interacting with visitors.   For more information, check out this link to a recent news story about Briarwood.

I have enjoyed many visits to Briarwood and have always hoped to be there when the Louisiana iris were blooming in the Bay Garden.  Luckily for me, this was the year for that trip.

A lovely lavender Louisiana iris

'Dixie Deb'

I visited on April 20 and 21.  In spite of the drought, the Bay Garden was lush.  This is due to the fact that the site is on a seep.

I arrived late in the day and explored Briarwood with Jessie.  We strolled through the Bay Garden.  I had a great time taking tons of pictures.  I realized later that I should have been listening to Jessie and taking notes because she knows the name of every iris in the garden.

At the pond mountain laurel bloomed beneath a large buckwheat titi.

After we left the Bay Garden, Jessie took me to the pond where the mountain laurels were in full bloom.  We paused to admire Grandpappy, Miss Caroline’s 300 year old longleaf pine.

We proceeded to Miss Dormon’s cabin where more mountain laurels were cohabiting with the Florida yew (Torreya taxifolia).

Then we cruised through the woods to the wildflower meadow where the yellow baptisia (Baptisia nuttallii) was sporting a few lingering blooms.

Later that evening, Richard and I rode through the wooded trails that were populated with scattered clumps of white butterfly weed (Asclepias variegata). The luminescent blooms seemed to glow in the dusk.

Richard Johnson paused from trail repair to tell a story.

The stewartia blooms were a pleasant surprise.

Our destination was Briarwood’s newest land purchase.  We crossed a beautiful tea-colored sandy creek as Richard talked about his future plans for Briarwood.

Richard is a storyteller of the highest degree.   As we rode, he talked and I listened with a big grin on my face.

The next morning as I was leaving, Jessie said “Oh, the silky camellia (Stewartia malacodendron) might be in bloom.  Do you want to check?”

“Please”  I responded and we were off to find, of course, the desired plant in full bloom.  It was the perfect ending to a wonderful visit!

I highly recommend a visit to Briarwood.  For details and contact information, visit the Briarwood website.


 

Mountain Laurel

Montain Laurel is one of our most lovely native shrubs especially when it flowers in late spring.

I discovered mountain laurel (Kalmia latifolia) late in life.

I grew up in a Blackbelt prairie town.    The soil was heavy clay and if you dug very deep, you would hit limestone.   This is not the preferred habitat for mountain laurel.

I just assumed that the summer temps were too high and that mountain laurel did not grow in the Deep South at all.

I admired it in pictures and knew that some day I would see it blooming  in the wild.

Imagine my surprise when I encountered mountain laurel on a canoe trip on the Chunky River near my Meridian, Mississippi home.

My timing was perfect.  Mountain laurel was blooming EVERYWHERE!!!  The river banks were pink.  The water was full of bobbing kalmia flowers.  They looked like floating cake decorations.

It seems that in the really hot parts of the south, mountain laurel grows along creeks and rivers.   It can be found perched on the banks up above the water as far south as Mobile, Alabama.

It can also be cultivated as a shade garden plant in the south as long as the soil is acid and well drained.   However, it is difficult to find in the nursery trade because it is very hard  to grow in a container.  The only nursery in my neck of the woods that sells it is Dodd and Dodd Nursery.

If you do find it for sale, it has a low survival rate in the landscape unless you know how to plant it.   The rules that I have learned by trial and error (and from my friend Julius Furr) are as follows:

  • Plant during the dormant season – late fall or early winter.
  • Loosen the roots and remove most of the bark based potting soil from the root ball.  It can be used in the planting hole or on top as mulch.  Just don’t leave a big hunk of it in the ground around the roots.
  • Plant shallowly so that the top of the root ball is a half inch or so above grade.

I do love mountain laurel.  It quite dramatic in any season due to its lovely form and glossy evergreen leaves.  It is especially beautiful when in flower during late spring.  My only complaint is that the interesting flower buds always give me a craving for birthday cake.


 

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